Friday, November 8, 2019

Murders On-Line


"Arrested for Youtuber crimes"
"Pop Team Epic"

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I noted how I think many contemporary mystery authors still seem to struggle with implementing modern technology in mystery stories, let alone supernatural elements. For some reason, modern technology seems to frighten a lot of writers, as if their mere existence render a puzzle plot mystery impossible (spoilers: that's not true). It's really weird if you think about it, as smartphones and everything are a normal part of our lives now, and I bet a lot of the readers of this article now are reading from either smartphone or tablet, but few mystery authors seem to be able to incorporate these essential parts of our lives in puzzle plot mystery stories in a consistent, regular manner. Both Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo can be seen as the rare occassions, with both series following the development of consumer technology during their serialized run fairl closely. Conan's usage of technology in particular is very noticable, with one of the first stories ending with Conan calling Ran on a public payphone, while nowadays the series often features mystery stories where smartphones and apps are used.

This is definitely a reason why Yukashina Miho's short story Nimannin no Mokugekisha ("Twenty Thousand Witnesses", 2019) was a surprisingly pleasant read, as it's so clearly set in today's society, without relying solely on that notion to present a capable mystery plot. Yukashina debuted this year as a professional mystery author with this story by winning the 16th Mysteries! Newcomer Award. This is basically the sister award to the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award: both are organized by the same publisher and both awards includes a publishing contract for the newcomer for their work, with the Mysteries! Newcomer Award meant for short stories, and the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award for novels. In the case of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award, publication means being published on paper in the literary magazine Mysteries! and as an individual e-book release. Nimannin no Mokugekisha was originally submitted with the title Tsumabiraka ~ Hokenshitsu no Fushigi na Sensei ("The Full Details -The Curious Teacher in the Infirmary"), but it got a title change after it won the award. And to be honest, I like the current title much better.

The story starts with Yuuko visiting the infirmary of the high school of her best friend Junna. Junna had died on the evening of the first of March, falling from the Shin Yodogawa Oobashi Bridge in Osaka and drowning the Yodo River. Junna had been pregnant, and both her mother and the police reached the conclusion she had become desperate and committed suicide. Yuuko however knows this is not true. The day before her death, Junna had visited Yuuko, saying she was going to elope with the father of her baby, but on the night of her death, minutes before her fall, she called Yuuko, saying something was wrong with her boyfriend and that she was afraid and needed help. Nobody believes Yuuko's story however, so she decides to visit Junna's school, as Junna had told Yuuko that their school nurse was someone she could trust if she ever needed any help. While at first Yuuko's surprised to learn that the school nurse Amagai is a man (even if only a temp just filling in for the regular nurse for a period), she soon learns he's indeed more than meets the eye. Yuuko confides to Amagai that Junna's boyfriend and father of her baby is a person known as  "Shiiga", a Youtuber fairly popular with people their age. Junna was supposed to elope with him, but he betrayed her and threw her off the bridge. While Yuuko has also voiced her accusations to the police, there's one problem: Shiiga has an alibi, an alibi which is vouched for by twenty thousand witnesses! For on the night of Junna's death, he was doing a live Youtube broadcast from his room between nine and ten, exactly the period when Junna fell of the bridge. He had twenty thousand viewers during the live stream, with whom he interacted, meaning he could not have killed Junna, even if Yuuko's convinced he did it. So how's Amagai going to crack this alibi?

Youtubers, live streams and chat boxes, it's all a part of the modern life now, so indeed, why not a story where a live stream is the alibi? In essence, it's really no different from the impossible alibi stories where the murderer is on stage while committing a murder, or if you want a more modern counterpart, where the murder is committed while the killer is chatting with someone on the internet. What makes Yukashina's story enjoyable however is that is not relying solely on this story element. While the idea of twenty thousand witnesses is really great, she treats live streams as a matter of fact, and nothing more special than any other part of modern media. Amagai for example uses the internet to google all the facts he needs to know, because, well, that's what all of us do. He's not even technology-savvy, but he can do basic Google searches like any other person. While I think the basic gist of this alibi was created can be guessed fairly easily, I think Yukashina did a good job at not bettng everything on one card: in order to conclusively prove the alibi is false, you need to attack the problem from multiple angles, which are quite nicely clewed in the story. The story does not require any special knowledge about social media or technology that the average person wouldn't know nowadays, but also does not pretend like we live in a world where all of that is strange: it's a matter of fact that they are part of the modern society now, so it simply uses everything that is available. One could definitely point out that the seperate lines of reasoning that Amagai proposes to prove the thing's fake aren't particularly surprising, but Yukashina combines all these ideas in a coherent form, resulting in a compact, but surprisingly dense story that is satisfying from start to finish.

After reading Nimannin no Mokugekisha, I decided to dig up another story which won the Mysteries! Newcomer Award which I had lying around. Ibuki Amon debuted in 2015 with the short story Kangokusha no Satsujin ("Murder in Prison" 2015), which is ironically the complete opposite of Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's set in the past, to be exact, the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Hirabari Rokugo was a warrior during the revolution that brought forth the Meiji rule, and while he originally fought on the side of the imperial forces, he eventually turned against them due to their treatment of those who fought during the revolution. It took a lot of trouble to capture Hirabari, who was transferred to Rokkaku Prison in Kyoto. Political motives had led to his incarceration in the former capital of Japan: figures in positions of power feared what Hirabari could reveal about their (dirty) roles during the revolution and wanted him executed as once, while the Ministry of Justice of course wanted to get as much information as they could get out of Hirabari. However, Hirabari's execution was decided upon surprisingly early, so the justice officials Shikano Shikou and his superior Etou Shinpei travel to Kyoto to bring Hirabari the bad news he's going to be executed that very day. Hirabari is eating his congee breakfast while Shikano tells him this, but he suddenly keels over. The man's dead almost immediately, as his food had been spiked with poison. This leads to a problem, for everyone in the prison who had the opportunity to poison the food, also knew Hirabari was going to be executed that day, so who would go the trouble of poisoning the man?

A very different kind of story than Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's purely a whydunnit. Why poison a man who was going to be executed and decapitated in a few hours? While there are a few people who seem more likely to have done it than others, there's still the question of why it was done in such a conspicious manner, as suspicion was bound to fall upon only a very limited circle of suspects.  The surprising truth is wonderfully fitting to the time period and singularly unique. While it may be a bit difficult to guess on your own, I'd say Ibuki also did a good job at setting the reveal up with proper hinting to the reader, meaning they too have a fair chance at guessing what that motive could possibly be, even if it's really a motive that only exists in very specific context. But definitely a memorable story.

Anyway, both these stories were entertaining and offered unique situations that makes them stand out in your mind. Ibuki Amon kept on building on the world of his debut story by the way: his first standalone book release Katana to Kasa ("The Sword and the Umbrella") was released last year and is a short story collection featuring further adventures of Shikano. It's definitely a book that's on the radar now. Yukashina Miho only debuted officially last month, as her story was featured in the October 2019 issue of Mysteries!, but I'm definitely keep an eye on her future work too if she chooses to continue writing.

Original Japanese title(s): 床品美帆「二万人の目撃者」


  1. One of the things that has always struck me about the mystery story (and of Western popular culture in general) during the time period from 1890 to 1940) was the sheer inventive range of the material of the authors. It seems to me that each civilization has a period of maximum cultural fertility and then it fades away as variations on its material becomes exhausted. All the low-hanging fruit has been exhausted and to come up with new variations becomes increasingly difficult and requires more work; more work than the average writer wants to put in now. If you want to be a technological writer like R. Austin Freeman you have to do a lot of research first. Modern authors lack the imagination, industry, and interest in creating new variations.

    But even in regard to the YouTube story you liked, I note an obvious predecessor in a story like Ed McBain's Eighty Million Eyes (1963), where a man gets murdered on the fairly new mass communication instrument of television. Or a murder on stage as in Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christiana Brand,. As she states (pages 60 and 61) it's really just another variation on the locked room story where "full view" substitutes for "no view." But new technology presents new challenges. The authors don't want to put in the extra effort to work with those new variations.

    1. i liked your take regarding "modern writers not really wanting to put in much work towards their books".

      interesting because it's been proven that books are getting longer and longer. with what you might think lmfao. just plain old filler and empty blabbering i assume.

      i am becoming less and less excited with psychological/thriller/mystery releases nowadays. the most popular being copy pasted from one hit. i am currently reading a very rec'ed book that blatantly mimics gone girl and alludes to it blatantly in the middle.

      so you get more and more content but less and less creativity and prose. because they're badly written and edited too!

      when you compare current efforts with older authors and books, it becomes apparent how much creatively ankrupt the majority of modern authors are. very rare are those taking risks and capable of handling great narration and storylines. i guess it's because of the need for publication houses to churn a huge number of books,the distate for risky outputs, and self publishing which brings out amateurs looking to bank on more popular franchises or take advantage of a small niche with mediocre content.

    2. If anything, I find that my thirst for tricks based on contemporary (consumer) technology is mostly fueled by television productions. The original Detective Conan manga has plenty of stories build on modern technology, but the anime also has many anime-original episodes (by different screenplay writers) that utilize whatever is 'normal' at the moment in (Japanese) society. The same with Japanese mystery television dramas, with many one-off episodes that utilize technology the usual viewer is quite comfortable with.

      In that sense, I have a feeling that someone like Freeman was probably ahead of the wide conciousness, which isn't a good thing per se (not precisely sure about the historical timeline here). The thing I liked about the Youtube story is that it's about *commonly known* technology.

  2. Is there a reason the ebook of twenty thousand witnesses costs less then 2 bucks on kobo rakuten?

    super weird because it's this year's release and won a prestigious prize. you'd think they would bank on that.

    anyways, another purchase for me because ho-ling rec'ed it. sighs. so little time to do everything.

    1. It's a short story, so that's about what they could ask for it: don't forget it's also published in the October issue of Mysteries! (which also has other serializations/articles/regular magazine stuff), and one issue is about 1200 yen I think?

  3. Pretty cool that you reviewed "Kangokusha no Satsujin".

    It challenges Norizuki Rintarou's 1992 short story "Shikeishuu no Puzzle" with a very similar purpose, but providing a completely different answer for solution and murder motive. Definitely a very interesting take on the same problem (well, different setting and time period).

    1. Huh, I hadn't even thought of that story! I always associate that one with Queen's Tragedy of Z because of obvious parallels, but I guess I got distracted by the historical setting of Kangokusha no Satsujin.

  4. Kangokusha no Satsujin 's synopsis sounds extremely similar to Monk's episode where a death row inmate is poisoned on the very day of his execution while eating his last meal iirc. Although the motive in the tv show is very modern and not something which could fit into a story set in 19th century.

    1. Monk was never really a series I followed, though I usually stuck around whenever it happened to be on. I was thinking of how a modern variation of Kangokusha no Satsujin's motive could work, but I guess that by the time you have adapted it for modern times, it'll already been transformed into something significantly different.